August 19, 2011
The least you should know about the 2011 Sooners. Part of Big 12 Week.
• Ballad of a Thin 'Stache. Quarterback Landry Jones has started 24 games for Oklahoma over the last two seasons, during which he's led the Sooners to a Big 12 championship and BCS win and put himself in position this year, if he stays healthy, to obliterate the school passing record set by predecessor Sam Bradford. As a redshirt sophomore in 2008, Bradford passed for 4,720 yards for a team that won the Big 12 championship, finished 12-2 and landed at No. 5 in the final polls. As a redshirt sophomore in 2010, Jones passed for 4,718 yards for a team that won the Big 12 championship, finished 12-2 and landed at No. 6 in the final polls. Based on the record books and the trophy cases, the only thing Bradford did in two seasons as the Sooners' starting quarterback that Jones hasn't done is win a certain hunk of bronze.
But where Bradford was honored with the Heisman Trophy, Big 12 coaches didn't even see fit to put his successor on the all-conference team. Obviously, for the headliner of the No. 1 team in the nation in the preseason polls, Jones' virtues are still curiously dependent on the eye of the beholder.
On the one hand, he's a veteran who hung at least 300 yards and multiple touchdown passes on nine different opponents last year, and finished second nationally in both categories. On the other hand, Oklahoma ran significantly more plays than any other offense in college football, and Jones put the ball in the air more often than any other quarterback. In pass efficiency terms, Jones was well behind the elite.
That said, it's a given the big numbers are going to be there at the end of the season, for Jones and his first-rate set of receivers. But if Oklahoma is bound for a national championship after a decade of near-misses, it won't be because Jones has broken a few records: It will be because he's banished any doubt that he's more than just a competent guy in an up-tempo system designed to exploit a defensively challenged conference.
• New kids on the block. Even more pressing is the all-purpose void left by workhorse DeMarco Murray, who capped his mercurial career last year by logging more offensive touches for more yards than any other player in the Big 12. He leaves as OU's all-time leader in total yards, touchdowns and receiving yards by a running back. And of the four candidates seriously vying to replace him, three former blue-chip recruits — sophomores Brennan Clay and Roy Finch and true freshman Brandon Williams — were overshadowed in the spring by a walk-on. So, at what point is it normal to feel the beginning pangs of panic?
Probably not for a while still. In the first case, as reliable as Murray was, last year's ground game was one of the least productive in the Big 12, ahead of only the rock-bottom attacks of Colorado and Kansas, and was dead last in the conference in yards per carry. Those numbers should come up behind a virtually intact offensive line, regardless of who's carrying the ball. There's also no end to the untapped potential among Clay, Finch and Williams, whose collective recruiting hype matches any backfield's in the country.
Oklahoma's championship-bound teams in 2000 and 2003, both of which were oriented around a deadlier-than-he-looks quarterback — undersized juco transfer Josh Heupel was Heisman runner-up in 2000; Jason White won the trophy in '03 with duct tape in place of his knee ligaments — whose extreme efficiency made up for a decidedly non-deadly running game. Statistically speaking, those outfits still stand as the two least potent ground attacks to play for a BCS title in the Series' 13-year history, and as a relief for Sooners fans lamenting the absence of a proven, NFL-bound workhorse.
• Holding it together. Under any circumstances, the defense was bound to spend the summer being poked and prodded as the most likely liability to the title push after finishing 53rd nationally last year in yards allowed and seeing off All-Big 12 picks Jeremy Beal and Quinton Carter. But the offseason has further indulged the skeptics: Since the spring, the Sooners have endured the tragic death of senior linebacker Austin Box, a foot injury that will put senior linebacker Travis Lewis on ice for the first month of the season and now an unresolved academic issue that threatens to sideline defensive end Ronnell Lewis.
Still, the softest spot on the depth chart remains in the middle of the line, where OU lacks a reliable run stuffer to reverse the trajectory of a run defense that tumbled from eighth nationally in 2009 to 58th last year. The hope is that junior defensive tackles Stacy McGee and/or Jamarkus McFarland will break out of the "growing pains" phase and deliver the dominant presence that was so sorely missing, but otherwise there's no obvious reason the situation will improve.
• Make them earn it. The absence of the Big 12 Championship Game in December means one less obstacle to the BCS Championship Game in January, but there are more than enough stumbling blocks to worry about in the meantime: Between Florida State, Missouri, Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, OU has five dates with teams opening the season in the top 25 and three against teams in the top ten. The Sept. 17 trip to Tallahassee stands out for three reasons: a) It's a major road test for a team that never loses at home (36 straight wins and counting since 2005) but has dropped multiple games away from Norman in six consecutive seasons; b) It's the first major test with Lewis out of the lineup; and most importantly, c) It's a direct gauge of where the 2011 Sooners stand in relation to the 2010 edition, which incinerated Florida State last September, 47-17.
If this group has that elusive "it" factor that emerges in championship teams, we should find out pretty quickly.